By Dave Shively
Saba Slayer has one key piece of advice: Once you start pulling, do not stop.
The Slayer knows better. He has spent 15 years honing the finer points of hoop netting off the California coast. And the point of today's exercise in vigorous rope-pulling is netting crabs.
Any pause and the feisty crustaceans have a fighting chance, shaken from their feast of mackerel baited below. They must not escape the netted elevator to oblivion.
"If you tip that net or stop as you're pulling up, they'll be right out of there in a second," says the Slayer, who has written the book ("Hoopin’ it Up") on this technique for catching crabs and their equally delicious bottom-crawling kin, lobsters.
Saba Slayer is easily mistaken for his alter ego: mild-mannered Jim Salazar, a 41-year-veteran film industry Key Grip and longtime Department of Fish and Wildlife-licensed kayak fishing guide. He was up at dawn, setting the nets in precise locations that he's tracked and GPS-mapped meticulously according to productivity. The target is a slope 80-85 feet deep on edge of the Redondo Submarine Canyon, a sliver of deeper sea abutting the tangled urban grid of Los Angeles.
As Jim set his nets, the rest of our crew weaves through L.A.'s rush-hour freeways. But soon we're off the smoggy grid and on the water, happily paddling past the King Harbor breakwall into sets of head-high rollers.
Well over a mile offshore, we arrive at the first of 10 hoop nets. Jeff grabs the buoy, tosses it over his kayak and starts pulling. About halfway up, you can see the burn setting in. Jeff grimaces, his pace slows. The normally easy-going Paul isn't about to sit idly by as this crabbing rookie allows the net's bounty to escape. "Don't stop!" he shouts savagely.
With the conical net on his deck, writhing with three sizable red rock crabs, Jeff faces a new dilemma: transferring the catch to his mesh game sack. Jim slides alongside and offers some sage Crab Whisperer advice. I don't hear it, but it seems to work. The score after one trap: three crabs, ten fingers.
My turn. I glove up and go for the pull. And more pull. And more pu-uugh. Feeling my arms burn, the trap finally surfaces onto my lap.
Octopi?! What is this? My net squirms with five translucent red critters. I get lost staring at the wriggling tentacles as two slither back to the depths. I snag one to throw at the next closest paddler, but it reads my mind and snakes away.
Focus shifts to the four crabs. All are within the legal bag-able limit of at least 4 inches across the narrowest part of the body. Now what? I try grabbing the claws. So strong. They grasp for life onto the net lattice. Paul paddles alongside and suggests grabbing from the back legs. I tug one hard, and it comes off in my hand. Not without the melted butter, I think.
The only answer: Get angry. Grab for the claws, wrestle, shake the net, recoil hands, avoid high-pitched shriek at pinch attempts, curse, repeat. I only find success in my rage, suspending recognition of any little crab souls. It helps that we're not dealing with puppies here; these are distinct aliens waiting patiently to snap off my fingers. All four in the bag, I exhale and toss the bag in the well. On to the next net.
We paddle our way around the drop zone, pulling each net twice. In between, I give the rod a try for some vermilion rockfish off the bottom. Piercing the hook with just the right amount of squid bait, I focus keenly on the foreground--not minding the ocean's endless sideways lull on the periphery. Up and down, down and up.
"Ugh, I'm getting a little queasy, dude," I tell Aaron, barely mouthing out the 'dude' before the kneejerk purge jets a uniform cylinder of coffee out of my mouth and over the kayak's edge.
Ahhh, much better. But now my stomach is empty. I look back at my crab stash. Lunchtime.
We ride the rollers right in, total our 22-crab haul, snap a few pictures, load the kayaks, and walk across the parking lot to Capt. Kidd’s Fish Market.
There we stare through blood-shot eyes, salivating over chapped lips as we watch the payload lowered into a boiling cauldron. The fishmonger's movements are fast and precise, de-shelling, cracking, piling.
So wait a second, do crabs have souls?
"I don't know," Jim says. "I believe in catching and killing what you eat--I mean, that's reality, and I think there's something to harvesting what you eat and being a locavore. It's the taste, but it's also the hunt, and the smiles you see when you're eating and in pulling the nets up--that's the payoff."
Before we can even open our beers we're ingesting the tender claws.
And before my brain can decode my stomach's signals ("Stop eating, you glutton, we're all full down here!!"), I'm already gloating, figuring out my next crab-netting master plan. And I've arrived at a simple realization: Of all the strange paddling missions I've done, I never eaten this well at the end of the trip.